On Wednesday morning, the Cardinals traded Mike Leake and international bonus pool money to the Seattle Mariners for infielder Rayder Ascanio. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the financials of the deal look something like this:
Leake, 29, is owed $55 million on the five-year, $80-million free agent contract he signed with the Cardinals before the 2016 season and the Cardinals are paying some $17 million of that, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Leake had to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.
Before I critique the deal, I’d like to point out that I completely understand why they signed Leake. At the time, Lance Lynn had just undergone Tommy John surgery that ended his 2016 season before it started. The club lost the David Price sweepstakes despite making a strong offer. Jeff Samardjiza signed with the Giants.
Furthermore, there was no pitching prospect on the cusp of the majors. Luke Weaver had completely 105 innings at High-A with a 1.62 ERA, but a Palm Beach to St. Louis jump was never going to happen, especially when a consistent supply of innings Lynn’s specialty. Alex Reyes pitched 34 2/3 decent innings at Double-A in 2015 but a 40-game suspension for recreational drug use loomed. Jack Flaherty was just a 19-year-old prospect in the Midwest League.
While I understand the reasons behind the deal, circumstances have changed. Today’s deal is certainly a positive in my view, and here’s why.
Pitching prospects have developed.
Flash forward a year and a half. Jack Flaherty has emerged. Luke Weaver has a 2.48 ERA and is striking out over 30% of hitters he faces (both those stats will regress). Dakota Hudson and Ryan Helsley were named pitcher of the year by their respective leagues. Austin Gomber is perhaps the hottest starter in the organization right now, with a 2.74 ERA and opponents are hitting just .178 against him.
Oh, and Alex Reyes is set to return from Tommy John next season.
Pitching depth, a serious question mark when Leake was signed, is perhaps the organization’s greatest strength right now.
Leake embodied the ‘complacent’ front office.
Back on July 27, Zach Gifford wrote about how the Cardinals attempted to construct a high-floor roster through free-agency. In short, it’s an ineffective strategy because average to above-average players can be developed and free-agent money should be conserved for elite talent despite the higher cost. (I don’t do the article justice, so read it).
While I don’t think the Cardinals’ strategy was developed out of cheapness or lack of a will to win, it hasn’t been effective. As the Cardinals have slipped from pennant winners to NL runners-up to losing in the NLDS to missing the playoffs by one game to crippling mediocrity, some have criticized the front office of being complacent.
I don’t buy in, but Mike Leake embodied it. Instead of going over the top for an elite arm like David Price, they settled for Mike Leake at a significant cost. Despite his 4.69 ERA, Leake posted a career best 2.5 fWAR in 2016 and looked like a Cy Young contender after a month of play this season (I never bought that).
Mo created flexibility.
This is probably the most important point.
Based on Mozeliak’s comments today about seeing what they had in their young arms and an unwillingness to talk extension with Lance Lynn, it appears the Cardinals have made a decision on the pitching front. Mozeliak is going to roll the dice on Flaherty, Weaver, Reyes, and Alcantara.
All four of those players will be cost-controlled through at least 2020, and the club saved some $38 million today.
You still have to hit and with no middle of the order bat on the way, Mozeliak will be forced to look outside the organization if they want to acquire one. And $38 million coming off the books could be a big deal.
Or, they package two of those pitchers for the bat and use the $38 million to help sign Lynn. Either way, the Cardinals created flexibility going forward. Today’s move proved one thing to me, though: they aren’t okay with three more years of Leake’s contract hampering their ability to compete. They’ve created flexibility heading into a pivotal offseason. They’d better do something with it.
Thanks for reading.